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Myth, Misogyny or Assistants to Terror: Pakistan’s ‘Radicalised’ Women


By Rita Manchanda

14 December 2017

Are Pakistani women getting radicalised and becoming assistants to terror – the purveyors of extremist ideologies, networking for Jihadi recruitment and funds collection and even participants in militancy in suicide bombings? Is this gender gap – the invisibilisation of their assistance as well as their resistance to terror – the fatal flaw in Pakistan’s National Action Plan (2015) to counter extremism at home?

A report by the Islamabad-based Insan Foundation on the ‘Role of Women in Pakistan’s Peace and Security' appears to substantiate some of the worst misgivings about madrasa education driving female radicalisation and emphasises the importance of attention to the familial and social linkages in producing extremism and militancy.

Detailing a broad spectrum of activities of these mothers and sisters, the report spans their reluctant collaboration in the interest of family harmony and social legitimacy in the recruitment of their sons for ‘jihad’ as well as their active participation in goading commitment to extremist ideologies and collecting funds for the ‘terror industry’.

Particularly for fundraising, ‘obedient’ wives and daughters schooled in madrassas run by Jamiat Islami and the networks associated with the more unconventional seminaries of Al Huda and Jamia Hafsa (Lal Masjid affiliate), exploit the religious guilt of Pakistanis within and outside to seek donations from household women who are unaware about the activities of the militants or extremists.

A Woman from Faisalabad, Punjab Explained –

“When women in a group come to our house, sit face-to-face in our own drawing room, ask for money for the wedding of poor girls, clothes for the flood-affected, or Kashmiri brothers, or ask animal-hides during Eid-ul-Azha, I feel scared. How can I refuse them? We have been living in this Mohalla (neighbourhood) for decades. The elder of these women whom we all call Aapa (older sister) lives next door to me. Despite my urge to refuse, I must give them money. I have heard about the banned outfits and that we should be careful while donating our money. How? I don't know which is the banned outfit.”

The transmogrification of banned organisations is a well-honed exercise conducted in full public glare. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) gets proscribed. Out of it emerges Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), led by Hafiz Saeed.

JuD also operates with impunity, a charitable wing Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation. JuD got listed as a terror outfit by the United Nations and the US put a $10m bounty on Saeed's head for ‘allegedly’ masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

On 30 January 2017, Saeed was placed under house arrest. Within three days, JuD reinvented itself as Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir (TAJK).

Gender discrimination, indeed misogyny, is the subtext of the religious cultural ideology of these extremist groups that deny women’s life choices, even while mobilising them for the cause of sacrificing sons for the jihad and participating in militancy-related activities.

Farhan Zahid, a co-author of the report emphasised the local socio-cultural context of the zones of violent conflict in Pakistan – Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan and Karachi.

This determines the nature of women’s role as assistants (and resisters) to extremist violence. For instance, in Karachi’s ethno politics, women due to their greater social mobilisation and economic independence are actively involved in the militant wings of political parties as facilitators carrying ammunition and weapons and claiming bodies of ‘terrorists’.

Religious militancy in Karachi also has its adherents. Media reports draw attention to a 20-member female cell, affiliated with the Islamic State, engaged in the recruitment of women, raising funds, and arranging marriages of militants arrested in Karachi. Police sources claim that Pakistan’s Rangers (paramilitary) have arrested a woman said to be trained as a target killer.

In contrast, in FATA where women are altogether marginalised, they do frequently voice support for militants, but Zahid contends, it was “less a matter of religious ideology and more a reflection of tribal and kinship associations that bind them to pledge support, at times non-consensually, to militant groups through the support of husbands or fathers”.

It is in FATA that the radicalising effect of the mushrooming female madrasa networks is evident. Of particular importance is the network spawned by the Jamia Hafsa, the 1,500 strong female wing of the Jamia Faridia seminary associated with the extremist politics of the Red Mosque in Islamabad.

It was the Burqa-clad baton-wielding girl students laying siege to the children’s library and raiding video and massage parlours in the name of inculcating Shariah or Martyrdom that galvanized the Musharraf government to act militarily against the Lal Masjid in 2007. Seven years later their successors at the Jamia Hafsa were back in the news with a video on YouTube in which they pledged allegiance to self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State (IS).

Meanwhile, FATA women who studied at the Jamia Hafsa had opened their own madrasas when they returned home. Bearing the select religious teachings of their mentor Umme Hassan, the wife of Lal Masjid’s Maulana Abdul Aziz, they exhorted girls/women to be loyal pious wives of mujahedeen and raise their children for jihad.

Before them was the example of their sisters in the Swat and Malakand valley who had started the Khairabad seminary-madrasa, where hundreds of girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa came to study and left indoctrinated with a bigoted world vision gleaned from a reading of select Islamic texts that emphasised sectarianism and justified violence.

These were the women who had enthusiastically supported the firebrand cleric Mullah Fazlullah who ushered in the Talibanisation of the Swat valley. They had donated their gold bangles, and chastised their husbands if they shaved off their beards or supported the Pakistan state’s military operations.

According to the Quetta Commission, there are 26,825 registered seminaries across Pakistan. All-female madrasas are estimated to be 1,900 with a student body of 236,000.

Zahid seems uncritically to reiterate the thesis of these seminaries as ‘weapons of mass instruction’, overturning the madrasa myth-busting research of Christine Fair that discounted the significance of religious teachings in the LeT fighter’s motivational profile.

Zahid and co-author Kishwar Sultana, however, agree about the key role of family members in recruitment and the particular value set on a mother’s blessing.

Even more influential in understanding the template shift in what makes a reading of radical Islam (and the legitimation of political violence) so attractive to the middle and upper middle-class women in urban centres of Pakistan and the diaspora is the modernised al Huda international network.

While Aneela Zeb Babar in her book We are All Revolutionaries Here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan is more circumspect and subtle in her analysis of al Huda and founder Farhat Hashmi’s advocacy of Jihadi politics, the Insan report is categorical about the seminary’s mission of Islamising young women so as to influence family members and raise a new generation of radicalised Muslims.

The Insan report emphasises the need to redefine the male-focused narrative of violent extremism and urges greater research into women’s participation in militancy and their role in countering violent extremism.

It holds out important policy and research implications for not only Pakistan but also in an India grappling with gender, political faith and militarism in a context of multiple fundamentalisms.